Filling a void
Special to The Union
On cold winter Saturday mornings a trip down the hill will remedy a hankering for fresh local produce when all farmers markets in Nevada County are closed for the season.
The Auburn Old Town Farmers Market near the town’s historic courthouse is one of 12 markets hosted by the Foothill Farmers Market Association. It is one of two open year round and boasts a “die hard” following.
“Customers who want to come to market will come rain or shine,” said Courtney McDonald, assistant general manager of the Foothill Farmers Market Association.
On Dec. 22, despite 30 mph winds and pouring rain, customers in rain suits and carrying umbrellas came out to shop at the outdoor market for ingredients to cook their Christmas dinners, McDonald said.
Though vendor participation drops off by about half and foot traffic slows down during winter, the market remains a viable one because many of the regions best crops, such as mandarins, ripen during the colder months.
Two farms from Nevada County sell their goods at the Auburn Old Town market – Four Frog Farm located in Penn Valley and Dinner Bell Farm located in Chicago Park.
At the Auburn market, Molly Nakahara from Dinner Bell recognizes some of the same loyal customers who visit the farm’s booth at the Nevada City Farmers Market that closed for the season in November.
“They’re always a little bit sad when the market ends,” Nakahara said, taking a break from selling smoked peppers on a recent Saturday.
Often she hears her farmer friends remark about how they want a year round market in Nevada County.
“I think there’s a huge need for at least one year round market in the Grass Valley and Nevada City area,” Nakahara said.
Hurdles to overcome
In Nevada County, where an elevation gain creates a shorter growing season, talks of a year round market comes with a mix of enthusiasm and hesitation.
“I am really surprised a year round market has not developed sooner,” said Seth Rosmarin of Nevada City.
Rosmarin sat on the board of the Nevada City Farmers Market up until last May.
“At the time we thoroughly discussed the desire and need for a year round market. Many a year round market exist in Maine, so why not Nevada City?” he said
Questionnaires were sent out to all the market participating farmers and at the time very few were prepared to plant a winter crop and join a winter market.
“It is very difficult to farm 12 months of the year and many farmers need the down time of winter to gear up for their spring and summer seasons,” said Cindy Fake, Horticulture and Small Farms Advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Placer and Nevada Counties.
Besides needing a break, winter farming can be costly to establish. Infrastructure such as hoop houses and high tunnels are critical to ensure a consistent supply of produce but are expensive to build, Fake said.
In Nevada City, a consensus was reached to extend the existing market in both spring and fall and plant the idea of an indoor market in the future to give farmers time to invest in infrastructure and more field space, Rosmarin said.
The Nevada County Certified Growers Market has long discussed a year round market and extended its Saturday market at the North Star House last season from mid-April to late November.
“Growers have been able to plan for the longer season with additional crop varieties and carefully timed planting. Some of our growers have invested in hoop houses to further extend production,” said market manager Doug Forester, mentioning Star Bright Acres and Sweet Roots Farm as examples. He said community response to the longer season has been gratifying.
Fake believes adding a full winter market is not realistic at this point given supply constraints.
“In order to make a market viable, you will need more farmers who have the time and energy to produce through the winter. It is doable in many areas of Nevada County, but it’s not for everyone,” she said.
A year round market in Nevada County might mean reaching out to some lower elevation farmers through the lean months, something a buy local crowd might not be willing to support, said Loomis Farmer Eric Hansen.
Hansen sells certified organic mandarins and lemons from his family’s century old Loomis farm, Pine Hill Orchard. He began selling produce at the first Grass Valley farmers market in the 1970s when it was held at the fairgrounds and has sold at the Auburn market since it started in the late 1980s.
He thinks a year round market is doable as long as it’s profitable for farmers.
“It’s feasible, especially if you have a good solid group of growers,” Hansen said.
Foul weather and alternatives
Would enough die-hard Nevada County customers venture out in foul weather?
The last week of the 2012 Nevada City Farmers Market was cold and rainy and even though it was the last weekend before Thanksgiving, the weather had a negative impact on customer turnout.
“I don’t know if the economic incentive would be there for the growers if the patronage is down,” said farmer Shaun Clark who supports the idea of conducting a consumer poll to gauge interest.
A posting for this article on the Local Food Coalition email list serve generated enthusiastic interest from seven consumers who said they would support a year round market if the produce came from local and organic growers.
“I much prefer going direct to the farmer for my eggs, etc. even in the off-season,” said Elizabeth MacLeod, who grows vegetables and fruit on her Chicago Park property and still makes a point to visit local farmers markets during the warmer months.
At least one local grower, Mountain Bounty Farm supplements the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program in the winter months by offering produce grown in the valley for customers who want boxes of farm fresh veggies year round.
A successful year round market would need a site protected from the weather, Fake said. The Roseville Foothill Farmers Market, also a year round affair, is cancelled several times each winter because of high winds.
“The ideal would be a pole-barn type shelter,” Fake said.
For a time, organizers of the Alpha Building project in downtown Nevada City had proposed a year round farmers market as part of their vision for the reconfiguring of the space.
Nikko Wu, owner of the Stonehouse Old Brewery has suggested the historic building as a good fit to hold an indoor year round market.
About 10 years ago, Fake surveyed growers in both counties.
“At the time we just did not have enough farmers who wanted to grow through the winter. We have more now, but Nevada County still needs more,” Fake said.
Ray Diggins is working on a food hub project called the Yuba Foodshed Alliance that he says will work basically like a year round farmers market. The Food Hub is an alternative food distribution system based on direct marketing, said Diggins, the owner of Grizzly Hill Organic Farm and producer the Mill Street Farmers Market in Grass Valley for 17 years.
Diggins plans to open two food hubs (similar to farmers markets) in May, one in Nevada City and another in the Brunswick Basin. About 22 farms in four counties and 50 consumers have signed up with the free network and regional farm mapping system found at: http://yubafoodshedalliance.org/.
In recent years, consumer demand has driven a flood of farmers markets in Nevada County with one held on nearly every day of the week during the summer months. This has triggered a new set of problems.
“Growers are earning less from each market because there are too many markets and too few customers. You need to grow the customer base before you expand to more or longer markets,” Fake said who suggested a better solution might be to slowly extend the season in spring and fall over a period of years.
For now, a drive out of town to Auburn Old Town is worth the gas. The market is open 8 a.m. to noon year round.
About 30 to 35 vendors are set up during the winter months offering cool season vegetables like kale, cabbage and salad greens, leeks, beets, radishes, broccoli, wheat grass, potatoes, winter squash, apples, mandarins and Meyer lemons.
Some vendors say there is more diversity now than in March, when there is a lull between growing seasons.
Besides produce, look for olive oil, bread, eggs, seafood, lamb, beef, chicken, nuts, honey and more.
“There’s a lot of customers who do buy all their groceries here,” said Zach Taylor of Smokey Ridge Charcuterie from Placerville who sells hand-crafted sausages, confits, pâté and condiments.
“I just wish I had more of everything,” said farmer Pablo Wilkin of Four Frog Farm who sold 30 bunches of kale by 10:30 a.m. He hopes to be at the market through January.
David Boesch of Loomis stopped to chat while his wife, Carrie, an avid home cook, selected some farm grown mushrooms for their basket.
“We try to come every Saturday we’re in town because it has great variety. We try to support local farmers… You can’t get any fresher than locally grown,” Boesch said.
On the web: http://www.foothillfarmersmarket.com
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-4877.
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